In the race for more viable forms of energy, a promising contender is that of natural gas vehicles (NGV). Rather than traditional gasoline-fueled vehicles, NGVs run on alternative forms of power: liquified natural gas (LNG) or compressed natural gas (CNG). Not only has there been a rise in manufacturing of NGVs, but many public transit options also cater to natural gas. As society looks to move away from gasoline and diesel, and while electric and battery-powered vehicles continue to improve, natural gas could be one piece in a network of solutions towards sustainable energy.
To fully understand the inner workings of NGVs, it is important to note the three types. There are dedicated NGVs that run entirely on natural gas, dual-fuel NGVs that enable the vehicle to operate on natural gas but use diesel fuel for ignition assistance, and bi-fuel NGVs that can operate on natural gas or standard gasoline.
Light-duty passenger vehicles are generally fashioned with dedicated or bi-fuel systems, while heavier-duty vehicles operate on dedicated or dual-fuel systems. It is important to note that NGVs do have slightly lower (but still comparable) driving ranges to standard diesel or gasoline automobiles. While NGVs may not provide the same mileage as diesel or gasoline vehicles, the biggest advantage is in rate of emissions.
Natural gas vehicles offer reductions in engine emissions and aid in lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Internal combustion engines – which generate the power for gasoline, diesel, and natural gas vehicles – can create a number of emissions, the most notable of which include unburned hydrocarbon, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide. As the cleanest burning hydrocarbon, natural gas leads to fewer harmful emissions than any other fossil fuel.
Switching to NGVs and even replacing gasoline with natural gas in construction equipment can greatly reduce atmospheric emissions. Successful studies and models such as the Argonne National Laboratory’s GREET model demonstrate the emissions benefits of NGVs. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Energy and Renewable Energy, the model illustrates that natural gas emits approximately 6 percent to 11 percent lesser amounts of greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline. The benefits don’t stop at reducing emissions however; cost is also a valuable factor.
While alternative fuel prices are subject to fluctuation, natural gas is a more affordable option when compared to gasoline. The April 2021 Clean Cities Alternative Fuel Price Report conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy demonstrated that CNG and LNG came to around $2.19 per gallon and $2.39 per gallon, while gasoline came in at $2.82 per gallon.
With the amount of research supporting natural gas as a viable alternative to gasoline, one may wonder why standard gasoline remains the largest source of fuel for vehicles. The answer is more complicated than it might seem.
First, natural gas fueling stations are rare in the United States. Nationally, very few gas stations are equipped with natural gas. Second, because natural gas is mostly composed of methane, leaks from drilling into reserves can prove to be hazardous; although techniques for safely capturing methane have advanced dramatically in the last decade. Third, while natural gas is more affordable than standard gasoline, the cost factor is also contingent upon how much gas is lost during production. Studies surrounding this vary in terms of breaking even or generating profit. When dealing with finite resources, it can also be expected that overtime, as reserves are tapped out or more costly to reach, costs will rise.
As industry and the economy slowly shift toward more renewable and sustainable technologies, fuels, and transportation systems, natural gas may feature more prominently. Compared to gasoline, natural gas may actually have greater longevity and in the long run, could see a reversal with gasoline in gas station availability and costs. While traditionally considered a fossil fuel, and therefore an exhaustible or non-renewable source of energy, natural gas actually enjoys the benefit of being derived from a number of places above ground and in real time. Renewable natural gas, from agriculture, fuel recycling, waste management, and other sources, could help support and sustain the natural gas vehicle market and eventually overtake gasoline and diesel.
For now, it is not practical for every American to own a natural gas vehicle. However, where NGVs prove most useful is as a bridge to cleaner, renewable energy and fuel sources. A great example is public transit and heavy-duty passenger vehicles. Currently, most public transit buses are fueled by diesel. By bridging public transit with natural gas, we would create more affordable public transportation while maintaining a manageable demand for natural gas. The benefits of natural gas and NGVs are certainly evident, but as with any source of alternative energy, it is one piece of a larger network of solution.
Written by Rachel Spencer, Communications Intern
(Photo Credit: Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz)
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.